Wednesday 18 March 2020

What the world should have done differently

Now that the global spread of Covid-19 is causing airlines to cancel international flights, governments to close borders and impose 14-day quarantines on everyone that arrives, and advocating mass testing and 'social distancing', not to mention many businesses (restaurants, theatres, bars etc.) and institutions (universities, sporting events etc.) to close down it is apparent just how insane the initial response of the WHO and governments outside of China was when Covid-19 started to spread from Wuhan throughout China.

At the time (only six or so weeks ago!) the WHO was advocating against closing down international travel, reading from a play book that obviously had been drawn up in the belief that the economic impacts of draconian measures would be far worse that any possible impacts of a disease spreading around the globe. And any government that banned arrivals from another country had to provide a 'please explain' to the WHO, and was criticised for their 'excessive' response. And governments generally were busy reassuring the public that 'all will be fine' and to not 'over-react' else there might be adverse economic impacts. While SARS and MERS should have been warnings to 'be prepared', the fact that they turned out to be relatively minor in terms of global impact meant that the wrong lesson was learned - that economic impacts should be minimised by taking a 'calm and measured' approach and avoiding too much disruption to international travel and trade.

Well, six weeks ago a blanket ban on arrivals from any country reporting corona virus cases, and a universal 14-day quarantine of all international passengers would have meant two weeks of relatively minor economic impacts, with adverse effects on tourism and the travel industry (but not much else), and providing the chance to implement a testing regime to detect and isolate all cases of Covid-19 as they arrived (so incoming passengers would now only need to be in isolation for two days awaiting test results). If those relatively minor inconveniences to international travellers had been enforced back in January, economies around the world would now still be functioning relatively normally, rather than coming to a grinding halt.

Of course, if such drastic measures *had*been done back in late January to detect all instances of international transmission (at the same time China was taking drastic measures to control communal spread within China) it would have never got to the stage of having communal spread in the USA, Iran, Italy, Germany, France, Spain etc. etc., so we'd now be looking back and criticising the 'over-reaction' that had occurred when there were never more than a handful of cases that didn't originate in China... Oh what might have been.

Hopefully when this is all over in a couple of years time the WHO 'play book' will be re-written (yet again) to handle all future Covid-xx outbreaks as potential pandemics, rather than make the (false) assumption that any new outbreak will be relatively minor and should be handled with priority given to minimising immediate economic impacts.

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